It is one of few football games in history that can literally be called a barnburner.
As LSU faced Auburn on Sept. 21, 1996, in a Top 25 showdown at Jordan-Hare, the game itself became a distraction from the surreal scene unfolding behind the stadium.
A misplaced grill sparked the old, wooden Auburn Sports Arena, which was adjacent to the football field. It did not take long for the entire structure, known as “The Barn,” to go up in flames as the game played on. Fortunately for everyone involved, a lack of wind and the work of the Auburn Fire Department assured that no one was hurt by the conflagration, which instead made for a dramatic visual for TV viewers and fans in the stands.
Video from AL.com:
The only place in America oblivious to the fire? The LSU sidelines. The smoke was behind them, so no players or coaches on the field had a clue what was happening outside the stadium.
What happened on the field was dramatic regardless of the backdrop.
In his first game seeing any significant playing time at defensive back, sophomore Raion Hill seemed to put the nail in Auburn’s coffin with a 39-yard interception return for a touchdown that extended LSU’s lead to 17-9 with 7:31 left in the game.
But Auburn wasn’t done, scoring a touchdown with 38 seconds to go before setting up a two-point conversion attempt for the tie. That’s where Hill struck again, picking off backup quarterback Jon Cooley’s pass and returning it the length of the field to provide the final margin in a 19-15 win.
Here is Hill’s recollection of that wild night, which helped LSU on the way to its first 10-win season since 1987:
I broke my tibia in the spring. It was Jack (Marucci) and Andy (Barker)’s first year as training staff. The doctor put a titanium rod in my right leg from my knee to my ankle. I rehabbed real hard that summer to get me back in the lineup.
I remember sitting on the sidelines for the Houston game (Week 1), Kevin Faulk had a great game. Me and Booger (McFarland) didn’t play that game. I could run more comfortable than I could walk at the time.
Coach Carl Reese always believed in me. I remember him letting me know how imperative it was for me to be part of secondary because we ran 4-2-5 a lot and I was one of the few players who could play the nickel/gator back position. I had an aggressive mentality against the run and could also play in coverage in the back. Coach Reese wanted to run a 5-DB system. He liked bringing the blitz out of the strong safety and nickel position. Greg Hill, Clarence LeBlanc. That’s what he saw as the strength of our team.
I had the middle-deep (zone). We were in a man coverage. I had to rotate to middle free safety from cover-2. I remember when I dropped back into the zone, the ball was just up there. As soon as I got back in my zone I was like “wow.” I couldn’t believe it. I remember just feeling like I was on the field by myself. It was a pretty easy catch. It came straight to me. Coach Reese put us in a lot of great positions on alignment and assignment. If you were in the right place you were able to get a blessing like that.
You know in the movies how you’re in different scenes that tunes everyone out? All the sudden I had the ball and was running to the end zone. I still couldn’t believe it. It was my first interception. It hadn’t resonated how big the play was during the game.
The 2-Point Return
That was crazy. Coach Reese again put me in perfect position from an alignment standpoint.
The first interception, you know you’re the last line of defense in the middle of the field. No one’s getting past you. That was a little chill. But with the 2-point conversion, I was man-covering the back. The back (slipped and) put me right in the throwing lane of a receiver running a post. The ball almost knocked me down because I was looking at my man. It was like it had stickum.
Before you knew it, I was gone. I never claimed to be the fastest person but going down that sideline I wasn’t gonna let nobody catch me.
— LSU Football (@LSUfootball) September 22, 2016
I remember after the 2-point conversion, going into the locker room I was pulled aside. People asked about the fire and I remember talking to the trainers just grateful for getting me into the game and healthy to help the team. To come away with a game with that was just a blessing. Thank God I have a piece of LSU history to share with my family and be proud of.
Fire? What fire?
That’s how in the zone it was. I was totally oblivious to all that going on. That’s the true meaning of being “in the zone.”
On not being mad that the fire prevents this from being remembered as “The Raion Hill Game”
The fire just — those pictures, not knowing that it was going on — the Auburn guys knew. That whole game was surreal. I didn’t get to my senses until I was sitting with Jack and Andy crying thanking God with all the rehab we put in. The fire gives it a great backdrop.
On the ’96 team changing the culture at LSU
The change over the last 20 years in LSU sports, in all sports. Recruiting the city of New Orleans, for a lot of guys LSU wasn’t their first option. (Hill went to Brother Martin High School in New Orleans). To see where LSU is the option now, it was good to be a part of the change you’ve seen over the years.